Whitcomb: Cicilline’s New Job; Carter’s Career; No Bottom; ‘Nightlife Economy’


Sunday, February 26, 2023


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Robert Whitcomb, columnist


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


— “The Red Wheelbarrow’’, by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), Imagist poet and critic and a practicing physician in New Jersey




“To teach is to learn twice over.’’

— Joseph Joubert (1754-1824), French essayist and moralist



“It is the HOMELIEST month of the year. Most of it is MUD, Every Imaginable Form of MUD, and what isn’t MUD in March is ugly late-season SNOW falling onto the ground in filthy muddy heaps that look like PILES of DIRTY LAUNDRY.”

― Vivian Swift, in When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put



The mild weather of much of the past few weeks may have tricked too many plants and creatures to prematurely awaken from their winter dormancy only to be slammed by a hard freeze—false spring.


But the forecast is for a hotter than “average” summer hereabouts.


I miss all those people with ash smudges on their foreheads you used to see walking around on Ash Wednesday. They were a reminder of deep history.



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David Cicilline PHOTO: GoLocal


Besides the big pay increase, to $650,000 from his current $174,000, you can understand several reasons why Rhode Island U.S. Rep. David Cicilline has decided to leave Congress and become CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation. Not that he needs the money.


With the GOP/QAnon running the House, albeit very narrowly, and mostly uninterested in doing the work of governing but very interested in pleasing campaign donors and the demagogic liars at Fox “News” and its fans/addicts, his chances of helping to push through important legislation would have been very narrow indeed.  (By the way, most Republicans in the last Congress voted against the much overdue “Bipartisan” Infrastructure Act meant to repair, replace and otherwise improve large parts of America’s  transportation, electrical-grid, water and broadband networks. President Biden keeps using the term “bipartisan”  to sound collegial.)


Further, Mr. Cicilline’s chances to win a top leadership position in the House have faded.


Then there’s that running the Rhode Island Foundation, the biggest distributor of charitable funds in the Ocean State, would presumably give Mr. Cicilline, a former Providence mayor, great influence as a big fish in the little pond of Rhode Island. That must be a big allure.  And that at 61, he may feel this is his last chance to run something important.


Let’s hope that the congressman, who has spent most of his adult life as a lawyer and legislator, displays newly found executive skills needed to run a fairly complex organization like the RIF.


I wonder how much the foundation’s board considered whether naming a political partisan as CEO might hurt donations to the RIF; I suspect it will, at least for a while.


At least one national drawback to Mr. Cicilline’s leaving Congress: He’s become something of an expert in cybersecurity and high-tech issues in general, such as the abuses by social-media companies.





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Jimmy Carter PHOTO: Carter Center

Jimmy Carter’s move into hospice care in his Plains, Ga., home brought back memories of this mostly under-rated president. I met and talked with him for a few minutes in 1975 (about inflation and energy) as the former Georgia governor was launching his campaign to win the Democratic presidential nomination the next year, and I’ve talked over the years with people who worked for him in the White House. He really did walk around in 1975 and 1976  saying “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president,’ ‘ as he stuck out his hand to be shaken. I had to ask a reporter standing next to me who he was.


His sometimes preachy honesty,  disinclination to make demagogic appeals and reedy voice hurt him.


But more than those things, this engineer trained at the Naval Academy probably spent too much time on process and too little in crafting and promoting over-arching themes that could garner broad popular support for his presidency over his one term. His successor, Ronald Reagan, as a former PR man for General Electric and actor, was much better at such politically effective simplifications.  He tended to make people feel better while Carter tended to make them feel that they should be more earnest and disciplined.


Carter, say some who served in the Carter White House, also often had difficulty delegating authority, thus sometimes getting lost in the bureaucratic weeds and diluting programmatic focus. That was odd because he did bring into his administration some very able people.


“I was sometimes accused of ‘micromanaging’ the affairs of government and being excessively autocratic, and I must admit that my critics probably had a valid point,’’ he said. But the story that he set the schedule for staff to use the White House tennis court wasn’t true.


What was true is that he was among the hardest-working presidents.


Without the Iran Hostage Crisis, including our aborted attempt to rescue our compatriots, Carter might have narrowly beaten the great showman Reagan.


Carter achieved some important things. He presided over a deregulation regime that, all in all, strengthened the economy; he was the first president to emphasize the importance of moving away from fossil fuel, and he began the military buildup (for which Reagan got most of the credit) in response to growing Soviet aggression, most dramatically seen in its invasion of Afghanistan. He also crafted the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and he resolved the simmering dispute over the status of the Panama Canal.


Very importantly, he set an edifying example of the sort of honest, straightforward  and often remarkably nonpartisan governance that The Founders had hoped for when they created the presidency.


At least as edifying was his post-presidential career as a doer of good deeds, whether working with Habitat for Humanity, helping people in natural and manmade disasters at home and abroad, monitoring foreign elections to promote democracy and other activities that made him for decades a citizen of the world. And unlike all his successors in varying degrees, he hasn’t tried to make a financial killing from his presidential experience. Indeed, he has continued to live modestly in his tiny town.


Here’s Carter’s  most famous speech, which others misnamed “The Malaise Speech’’:





The Joys and Perils of Amorality

There’s no bottom to the corrosive, anti-American corruption of the 24/7 lie machine Fox “News.’’ Read this about what Fox stars weren’t telling its public:








How thoughtful of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to give Fox’s Tucker Carlson many hours of classified surveillance video from the Capitol from Jan. 6, 2021, to make it easier for future terrorists to work out escape routes and evade security procedures. 



City Nightlife

I love the title. Corean Reynolds has been named Boston’s “director of nightlife economy,’’ by Mayor Michelle Wu, in a post-COVID bid to re-energize consumers to patronize the capital of New England’s entertainment and eating-and-drinking sectors.


Her duties will include improving transportation and law enforcement.


Ms. Wu, like some other big city mayors, is animated by the desire to make the city less dependent on office workers as the move to remote work has slammed the city’s commercial real estate sector. This must include getting more people to live in the city, some via the conversion of office buildings into housing (much easier said than done) and, say, turning some streets into pedestrian-only ways.


I’m sure that Brett Smiley, Providence’s new mayor, will be watching how it goes.




I wonder if it might be good city promotion in Rhode Island to put up more signs welcoming people to each neighborhood, including charming images evocative of each one.




Cities and states have granted companies billions in tax incentives for employing people who are supposed to be physically present in their offices. And some of these deals have required many of these workers to actually be at company properties some or most of their work time.


But these rules have often not been enforced. Might an enforcement push bring many more people back to work – and spending money in – downtowns?


Hit this link.





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PHOTO: file

Buybacks Over Safety?

Norfolk Southern Corp., the railroad company whose derailment has devastated the East Palestine, Ohio, area, apparently has considered boosting its stock price through stock buybacks a better “investment” than improving its trains’ and tracks’ safety.


We may need new regulations for the transport of hazardous materials. But can we enforce them?


Trump paid a campaign visit to East Palestine last week. His administration rolled back transport-safety regulations.



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Michael Reed, CEO of Gatehouse Media/ New Media Investment Group PHOTO: Gannett

Tax Breaks for Local News

The disappearance of so many local news organizations, especially newspapers, has created news deserts in many places.  This has undermined civic knowledge and engagement among the citizenry, with dangerous implications for our frayed democracy. So  I’m watching the Rebuild Local News coalition’s efforts at the state level to enact tax credits to help the outlets survive in the face of the theft of their reportage and the monopolization of ad revenue by the likes of Google and Facebook. It seems politically unlikely at this point that anything can be done at the national level.


Unfortunately, too many of the surviving papers are owned by asset strippers such as  New Media Investment Group, which owns many newspapers, including The Providence Journal.


Hit this link:





Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and others in the GOP/QAnon caucus tout the idea that Red States  should spin off from the Blue ones in some sort of what she calls a “national divorce’’. That might be an economic boon for the Blues as a whole because they pay considerably more in federal taxes than they get. The Red States, as a whole, are net takers of federal largess. They also, as a group, have the highest levels of poverty, violence and illness and the lowest levels of education.




A Gradual Weaning

More and more electricity in heavy-usage daytime hours is coming from solar energy in New England, reducing the need to draw from big power plants burning oil and gas.


Matt Kakley, a representative from ISO-New England, which  runs New England’s regional grid, told WBUR:

“{O}ver time, as more and more people have put solar panels on the roofs  of their homes or their businesses … they’re getting that electricity from those solar panels rather than the bulk power system….Things that were true and taken as facts 15, 20 years ago are changed now. The clean energy transition is happening. It’s already happening and will continue.’’

This is a hopeful sign that our region is making increasingly important progress toward more much energy independence and doing its part to address global warming. Here’s the WBUR story:



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Changing Medical Appointments

How medical appointments have changed over the past 50 years! Now you spend much or all of your time talking with technicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, with the physician often just making a cameo appearance at the end of the appointment. And more and more computerized equipment is used for diagnosis as opposed to physicians’ drawing out oft-erroneous information in conversations with patients.


In the “old days”  doctors, the overwhelming majority of whom were men, who tended to be avuncular with patients,  would dress rather formally, with, say, tweed jackets or dark suits and ties when not in scrubs or wearing white lab coats. The ties were very often bow ties – wouldn’t want to get a tie in a wound! They certainly didn’t wear white doctors’ lab coats on the house calls that many still made not that many decades ago, carrying their leather doctors’ bags. Now, the docs are apt to be almost as slovenly dressed as most of their patients are.


And, hard as it may be to believe now, plenty of physicians, including mine, smoked, some heavily and in your presence. Parts of some ER’s were blue with smoke from puffing doctors and nurses.

So medical appointments are less cozy now, but I suppose better. Medicine is more evidence-based and less physician-reputation-based. Still, the medical “system’’ as a whole remains an astronomically inefficient,  expensive and sometimes predatory mess!






Banning noncompete agreements for business employees, backed by the Federal Trade Commission, would almost certainly boost the economy, by, among other things, encouraging the creation of new enterprises; it would also compel at least some companies to raise wages. But could such a ban pass muster in the courts?



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Russia’s Vladimir Putin PHOTO: Kremlin News Service

A Bargain

U.S. military and other support for Ukraine are well worth it because they help protect our European allies from further Russian aggression. We share very deep economic and security interests with Europe. If Russia wins in Ukraine our allies will be further endangered as the sociopath Putin tries to push farther west, which he will.  And then there’s that old thing called “shared values” — freedom,  democracy and human rights. Priceless.


U.S. trade with Europe exceeds $1 trillion annually. Indeed, U.S. security and prosperity have been intertwined with Europe since World War II.   Total U.S. investment in the European Union is four times higher than in the Asia-Pacific region. E.U. foreign direct investment in the U.S. is around 10 times the amount of E.U. investment in India and China together.


Hit this link:


Since Putin’s full-scale invasion last year, the U.S. has given Ukraine a bit over $30 billion in security assistance – aid that has been given in America’s own national interest.


As inevitably (to me) ugly as the U.S. exit from hopelessly Islamo-Fascist Afghanistan was, after 20 years of trying to help it, it’s a good thing we don’t have that distraction from the far more important challenge of trying to protect the democracies from Russian and Chinese aggression, as these tyrannies try to craft a slicker version of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-1941.


What unifies the dictatorships of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea against the democracies (in which we can now include Ukraine) is not principle or patriotism regarding their own countries but rather regime preservation. It’s all about the dictators’ lust for power and their fear of what would happen to them, including physically, if they were overthrown. Russia’s defeat in its blood-soaked invasion of Ukraine would be an example that would intensify brave efforts to overturn these regimes.




Meanwhile, Mexico’s authoritarian, “populist’’ president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is scheming to create a full-fledged one-party dictatorship. But then, dictatorship is the default political system around the world.


Uninterested Father

Also a Poet, Ada Calhoun’s (born 1976) memoir about her relationship with her father, the one-time poet and long-time art critic Peter Schjeldahl (1942-2022) and charismatic poet and museum curator Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), boils down to the question of how to deal with a brilliant parent who is so self-absorbed that he’s hardly a parent. Call it creativity vs. family.


Ms. Calhoun’s book also provides a lot of exciting to crazy to funny, and mostly New York City-based, post-war cultural history —  sex, booze, weird accidents, genius! — in her story, launched by her unsuccessful effort to finish a biography of O’Hara that was started and then abandoned by her irascible father.

Robert Whitcomb is a veteran editor and writer. Among his jobs, he has served as the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, in Paris; as a vice president and the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal; as an editor and writer in New York for The Wall Street Journal,  and as a writer for the Boston Herald Traveler (RIP). He has written newspaper and magazine essays and news stories for many years on a very wide range of topics for numerous publications, has edited several books and movie scripts and is the co-author of among other things, Cape Wind.



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